Hunters, wildlife advocates, religious leaders and those concerned about climate change have one thing in common: they don’t like environmental destruction caused by coal. But economic factors rather than protests will probably be coal’s undoing.
On Tuesday, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council published a report showing that natural resource development in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming has hastened the loss of game animals, particularly the greater sage grouse and migratory species such as antelope and mule deer.
Every hunter knows that good habitat can increase hunting opportunity. This study shows what happens with degraded habitat.
The study evaluated the health of eight mule-deer hunting units and a dozen pronghorn antelope herds in 2012 based upon the number of young produced, the number of hunters in an area and the buck harvest.
The four mule-deer areas that received a "poor" rating all contained either large coal strip-mines or natural-gas wells. The only area that received a “good” rating had no natural resource extraction.
All 12 antelope herds earned low health ratings. The long-term trend shows decreasing harvest in eight of the 12 areas. For example, in Montana hunting district 704 between the Tongue and Powder Rivers, 222 antelope were harvested in 2012 as opposed to 1,800 in 1994. The area also contains four of Montana’s six coal mines.
And of course, sage grouse populations have cycled downward since 2006, which is why they were considered for Endangered Species Act listing.
While diseases such as blue tongue could account for some of the decline in pronghorn, the simultaneous decline of three species points toward another explanation: habitat degradation.
Sportsmen’s dollars go toward trying to maintain game populations, but based on the study, the money is wasted in areas affected by natural resource extraction.
To offset the degradation, the report recommends strengthening bonding requirements and raising the coal and oil and gas royalty rates to put more money toward restoration.
“Wildlife can’t thrive on habitat that is dominated by massive energy development projects, some of which can cover more than 133 football fields. More must be done to stop the proliferation of dirty fuel projects that threaten wildlife’s ability to survive,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of the Land and Wildlife Program at NRDC.
Meanwhile, over in western Montana, people are protesting coal's detrimental effect on people.
On Monday, about 30 supporters from various environmental organizations rallied at a railroad overpass on North Reserve Street in Missoula to protest the Washington Corporation allowing Montana Rail Link to carrying coal from Montana and Wyoming to western seaports.
As part of a national effort dubbed “Flood the System” headed by Rising Tide North America, the rally is one of many planned nationwide in November to oppose coal in advance of the United Nation's climate negotiations in Paris, France.
Electricity production generates the largest share of greenhouse gases that trap heat causing climate change. That's because approximately two-thirds of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
As coal cars rumbled under the overpass, the protesters waved banners and signs at passing traffic for a bit before attempting to enter the Washington Corporation building to give CEO Dennis Washington a letter asking him to stop shipping coal.
“A business dependent on an unsustainable industry is not a sustainable employer. What happens to the good jobs your company provides when the fossil fuel industry succumbs to the inevitable?” the letter said.
Security officers stopped the protesters before they reached the door of the building and told them to leave because they were trespassing.
Also on Monday, 44 religious leaders in Montana – from Catholics and Methodists to Jews and Buddhists - sent a letter to Montana’s congressional delegation expressing concern about accelerating climate change.
“As we approach another round of negotiations at the COP21 United Nations climate summit in Paris, we implore you as our representatives to use your voice and power to help our country take leadership in the transition to a vibrant renewable energy economy as quickly as possible. The window of time is small, but we can still make an impactful difference to our future,” the letter said.
The religious leaders and Flood the System may not have to wait for action from the Washington Corporation or Montana's delegation. The coal industry is succumbing to market forces.
Following the rules of capitalism, demand for coal has fallen as technological innovation allows cheaper alternatives to come online.
U.S. coal consumption is expected to fall by 100 million tons in 2015, or roughly 11 percent, due partly to utilities' preference for cheap natural gas. Hans Daniels, an analyst at Doyle Trading Consultants, told the Caspar Star-Tribune that U.S. consumption would probably drop another 40 million tons in 2016.
And China, which had been taking a lot of Montana’s dirtier bitumen-laced coal, has been scaling back its coal use in an effort to avoid the smog that has annually choked Chinese cities for weeks.
China’s consumption of coal grew rapidly to provide two-thirds of China’s energy in the early part of this century. But that growth has flattened out since 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In fact, it appears coal consumption will decline 2 to 4 percent this year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
China, India and the U.S. account for about 70 percent of global coal consumption, but China continued to reduce its consumption by almost 6 percent in the 12 months through September. Other countries with declining coal use were the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Japan, Canada, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia. Only India and Australia increased their coal use.
The decrease in demand is affecting large coal-mining companies, which are pulling out of leases in Wyoming, according to the Caspar Star Tribune.
In particular, Arch Coal - which has been trying to begin strip mining in the Otter Creek region of Montana – pulled out of a 957-million ton lease near Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming in January.
Gillette-based Cloud Peak Energy, which mines coal near Decker, Mont., among other places, is the only company still actively pursuing coal-mining leases in other parts of the West.